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YOU can trust HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi. As both canny politician and self-confessed ideologue of Vedic greatness, he has rarely disappointed. Ever since he assumed charge of this vast ministry, short on funds but high on patronage dispensing potential, he has single-mindedly pursued his agenda, ignoring the ever-growing tribe of detractors.

Convinced that the country’s ‘great’ educational infrastructure needed to be cleansed of the unholy nexus of Macaulayites and Marxists (liberals included), he has wielded his broom in every institution controlled by the ministry. ICHR, ICSSR, UGC, IIAS, NCERT – and the list can be expanded, have been touched by his evangelical zeal. Replace chairpersons and board members, rewrite textbooks in particular of history, introduce Vedic studies and glorify tradition, arbitrarily rewrite rules and revoke grants where people do not fall in line – the range of instrumentalities deployed to mould the country’s past and future is truly impressive.

Of course such an agenda engenders resistance, more so since few of the henchmen charged with the task have so far displayed the needed sophistication. On such occasions, the favoured strategy is to focus on the peccadilloes of previous, read Congress, regimes. It helps that both the late Nurul Hasan and Arjun Singh make for easy punching bags.

Barring the occasional hiccup, the unusually ‘smooth’ run so far seems to have emboldened the minister and his advisors into becoming more ambitious. And therein lies his error – a tendency to over-reach. Possibly, irritated with Prime Minister Vajpayee hegemonising the ‘Shining India’ campaign, he has now decided to take on the ‘mascots’ of India’s claim to global greatness – the Indian Institutes of Management.

Never mind the V. Kurien report which years back recommended a phased reduction of subsidies to higher, particularly professional, education, or even his own assertion, as recently as 1999, echoing a similar sentiment that ‘students should pay or decay’. Blatantly misrepresenting the recommendations of the U.R. Rao Committee, the ministry has unilaterally decided that fees to the IIMs will now be pegged at Rs 30,000 a year starting 2004-05.

That this will vastly increase the subsidy to the six IIMs, even as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan scheme, crucial to meeting the UEE targets by 2010, is languishing for lack of funds, evidently does not matter. Nor does the fact that these institutes have by now built up a corpus and are in a position to reduce dependance on government grants.

Simultaneously, he also wants an increase in student strength and in the student-teacher ratio, convinced that the faculty is under-utilised. Protests by these institutions – students, faculty, board – that the proposals will be detrimental to teaching quality, that no student of an IIM has suffered due to lack of finance (both loans and scholarships are easily available), and that this constitutes gross interference in the autonomy of the institutes, have so far been brushed aside. What instead we are told is that the move will permit larger numbers to break into the elite club of managers and add to our burgeoning middle class. Further, the low fee structure will dissuade ‘foreign’ players from entering the Indian educational market – a blow for swadeshi?

Since Professor Joshi, despite continuing on the faculty of Allahabad University, stopped teaching many years back, he evidently has little clue of what makes a good teaching/research institution. The pegging of fees or the extent of public subsidy is only part of the equation. Of greater relevance is the institutional autonomy to design curricula and modify pedagogy, hire faculty and select students, evolve programmes and create an environment where striving for excellence becomes a norm rather than a rarity.

All this takes time. Constantly having to look over one’s shoulder and develop skills to accommodate the whimsical fancies of political masters is hardly conducive to quality or developing a strategic vision. Nor is falling prey to the disease of mindless expansionism. But politicians and bureaucrats would not be true to their calling if they are constrained from demonstrating their power and ‘superior’ understanding. And if they are ideologically fixated, they prefer centralisation. Nothing else explains these retrograde proposals to further whittle away the autonomy of our institutions.

If the IIMs today enjoy a brand equity, it is by following the norms instituted by the founding fathers – Vikram Sarabhai and Ravi Mathai. Instead of deepening them, if our politicians and bureaucrats decide to extend control – over student selection procedures and fees, faculty deployment and curriculum, using the leverage of public funding – we will only be adding to the growing list of disfunctional institutions. It is time we learn to leave well enough alone. Truly, India is shining.

Harsh Sethi

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